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Advocating for equality: Biomedical engineering professor shares experience on challenging gender inequality in STEM

Assistant biomedical engineering professor Olukemi Akintewe encouraged female and underrepresented students to continue to persevere among the challenges of inequality. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/OLUKEMI AKINTEWE

Questions her 7-year-old daughter had begun to ask since recognizing inequalities toward women in society have inspired assistant biomedical engineering professor Olukemi Akintewe through her journey in chemical and biomedical engineering as both a professor and an advocate for women and underrepresented students in STEM.

Through her experience with gender inequality gaps, Akintewe said she was influenced to stand up and take action to address the problem.

“We as women strive and thrive as much as men but we are often ignored by men in leadership positions in society. Is it because of our insecurities or lack of confidence that makes us overlooked, or is it something more prejudiced?” Akintewe said.

Boys who have achieved a 3.0 GPA are celebrated but girls with a 3.4 GPA may still feel defeated and think they are a failure due to the societal pressures of being exemplary in their studies, according to Akintewe.

She said women often struggle in society given how they are conditioned at a young age to play with dolls, told that they belong in the kitchen and should care for their family but are discouraged to play with Legos, trucks and the “hard stuff.” Therefore, women generally are not able to think more three-dimensionally, according to Akintewe.

Akintewe said she never felt that she had equal opportunities in STEM compared to men. She said there have been moments where she has experienced bias, where her voice has not been heard or considered by her colleagues.

She worried the lack of respect directed toward her was because she was female, had a soft voice and was not boisterous, according to Akintewe.

Like every student, Akintewe said she had her share of struggles during her undergraduate studies. Her first course in engineering was Material and Energy Balances, which she said was one of her most challenging courses. However, her experience with the difficult material taught her to never give up once faced with a challenge, according to Akintewe.

Furthermore, Akintewe said her mentors, who were also studying engineering or were already in the field, were crucial in guiding her through her academic journey as an undergraduate student.

She said she previously thought engineers only worked on cars — not on developing chemical manufacturing processes and advancing biomedicine.

Her mentors also emphasized how important it is to look at and obtain internships before graduation to help secure her future as an engineer, according to Akintewe. Even in graduate school, she said her mentors continued to offer assistance and advice in helping her navigate through research and how to resolve conflicts with her peers and advisers.

Akintewe currently researches the explanatory factors that impact the female attrition rate. She first conducted her study through observing the females’ responses in the meeting and noted that they seemed distant. After the session, she invited all women to stay behind and conducted a focus group study. She said was looking for how the College of Engineering was being receptive to female students because engineering is typically a male-dominated field, which led to a discussion that opened and addressed many issues.

Akintewe said she first asked the female students about the origin of their interest in pursuing engineering. She said she also encouraged them to discuss their experiences with the College of Engineering and with their peers. Akintewe was also curious about the students’ academic progress each semester. In response, she said the students shared their successes and defeats about their experiences in the patriarchal educational environment.

“What can we do as a community to embrace the differences between males and females, in terms of learning? How can we as a community bring everyone to the awareness of how women learn, and what kind of environment can we foster that is equal to females?” Akintewe said.

Women’s History Month is a time to highlight the celebrations and achievements of women as well as their journey to success, according to Akintewe. She said there is importance in women celebrating themselves.

Given the challenges posed toward women in a male-dominated environment, Akintewe said she hopes people will learn to respect one another as colleagues rather than regarding women solely by their gender.

“There is no one solution, but it is important to learn the people that we work with and what is important to them. Use that strategy to better communicate with them. Know and understand their priorities and operate from that perspective,” she said.

Progress in gender equality in society and STEM has been made with the implementation of Title IX and its protections for women to safely report any instances of sexual harassment and assault in an academic or work setting, according to Akintewe.

An empowering moment that Akintewe said inspired her to keep progressing through her studies and research in STEM was attending a conference of the STEM Women Faculty of Color in The Academy.

“Seeing women of color in positions that were not common decades ago is inspiring and a demonstration of growth in society. It was enlightening and inspiring to see women just like me be vulnerable about the pressures associated with their work-life balance and still thrive,” Akintewe said.

Akintewe stressed the importance of words of affirmation and motivational quotes, and how they could help encourage students to pursue their dreams in STEM and research. She also said students should never be afraid to seek out academic support from their professors or tutors if they are struggling with comprehension of a challenging topic or with the pacing of the course.

“If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. Shoot for the stars and aim for the moon, but even if you miss both of them, you will land among the clouds,” she said.